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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Address by COSATU General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, at the launch of the Partnership on "Picking Up the Workers's Gains and National Recruitment Campaign-Carletonville

23 February - 2005

COSATU President Willie Madisha and members of the COSATU CEC
SACP General Secretary, Blade Nzimande
ANC Deputy Secretary General, Sanki Mahanyele
Minister of Labour, Membathisi Mdladlana
Director General of the Department of Labour, Dr Vanguard Mkosana, and all staff of the Department of Labour
The Mayor of Merafong

Earlier today we visited and paid homage to one of the greatest and finest revolutionaries our liberation struggle has produced, the first President of COSATU Elijah Barayi.

Today we want to assure him that his organisation is in good hands. His sacrifices will never be in vain. We know his revolutionary spirits is with us today as we launch two important and related campaigns.
We call on you Mdlane, Tutuse, Nomdimba, Ntlokwana ibanzana, Siqhiwu, Ntong’emfutshane yokungqungqa amankazana. We call on you inyange labasebenzi, sithi ubenathi xhego lethu elathetha kwangcangcezela ingwatyu kaBotha hamba nathi – nawe ngeke sikulibale.

This year, COSATU comes of age with our 20th anniversary. Today’s events, starting with our tribute to Elijah Barayi, form part of the year long celebrations for this giant of the working families. In addition, it is 50 years since SACTU was formed, the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Charter, and the tenth anniversary of the Labour Relations Act. Finally, it is ten years since Joe Slovo died.

Two days ago we saw the passing of another stalwart of our movement Raymond Mhlaba. Oom Ray is a fore bearer of the trade union movement in the true sense of the world. He was in the forefront of workers struggles for better wages and conditions at his early working life and played a pivotal role in strengthening democratic trade unions that later formed part of SACTU formed on the 5th of March 1955. COSATU is pleased that it honoured him with the highest award COSATU gives – the Elijah Barayi Award. We call on workers to attend the memorial services and his funeral in mass.

This year, we are determined to take our programme – “Consolidating Working Class Power for Quality Jobs, Toward 2015,” popularly known as the 2015 plan - to new heights.
Today is a very special day for COSATU members and indeed every worker in our country. We are signing an agreement with the Department of Labour called “picking up workers’ gains”.

This comes after we recognised that for too many workers, our legislative victories since 1994 have not translated into a living reality that changes their lives. We have a new Constitution – one of the very few Constitutions that in its Bill of Rights secure fundamental rights for workers. These rights include the right to join the unions, to bargain collectively, to strike, to sign union security agreements, and to fair labour standards.

Our rights under the Constitution are further elaborated in progressive legislation, - the Labour Relations Act, the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, the National skills Act, the Employment Equity Act, and the Occupational Health and Safety and the Mines Health and Safety Act.

By themselves, though, these laws cannot adequately protect workers. Above all, where workers don’t have unions, employers continue to abuse them, in many cases breaking the law with impunity. Despite the promises we make through our legislation, millions of workers on the farms, in small enterprises and in domestic labour continue to be trapped in apartheid-style labour relations. Casualised, subcontracted, temporary or atypical workers also face continued exploitation by employers.

Generally, two related problems stop workers from benefiting from our progressive legislation. First, many simply are not aware of the array of protections these laws provide them. Second, if they don’t belong to a union, they do not have the strength of unity to protect them against employers who break the law. Without a union, the power relations with the employers are such that workers risk their very jobs if they demand their rights.

Ultimately, everywhere in the world, labour laws work best where they help workers organise into strong unions. That gives workers a voice and the power to defend themselves.
We are signing this agreement on picking up workers’ gains with the Department of Labour in recognition of the fact that we must act fast and act now to translate the workers’ victories into practical meaning for all workers, on the farms or in the sweatshops in Newcastle, in domestic labour or the taxis.

Last year I had the honour of meeting Comrade Nokuthula Hlatshwayo in the SACTWU congress. The comrade lost her twin babies as she gave birth on floor of her factory because the employer normally locked in the night shift. To her, we say that we never return your babies to life, but we can ensure that women workers from now know and can demand the full protection of the law offers.

The BCEA prescribes that women workers “are entitled to at least four consecutive month’s maternity leave.” Every worker must know that, as the law states, every “employee may commence maternity leave at any time from four weeks before the expected date of birth, unless otherwise agreed, or on a date from which medical practitioner or a midwife certifies that is necessary that it is necessary for employees heath or that of her unborn child.”

To the families of the eleven workers who were burned to death on 19 November 2000 when a fire broke out in a factory called ESSCHEM in Lenasia because, again, the boss had locked in the night shift, we say: We can not return their lives, but from now on, through this partnership, we will ensure that no workers are locked in their workplace.

To the families of the farmworkers killed by being dragged behind a bakkie or beaten up and fed to the lions, we say again: We cannot return their lives. But we can build a union of farmworkers that will ensure no one ever again treats farmworkers as slaves. COSATU can act to strengthen the laws that are supposed to protect farmworkers, as we did when we fought for a minimum-wage determination for agriculture.

Together with the Department of Labour, we must ensure that every farmworker gets the minimum pay, leave, decent living conditions and working hours promised by our democratic Parliament.
The bosses hire us, they can dismiss us – they have power over us just because they have wealth – wealth that was often originally wrested from our people under apartheid. Today, laws have been introduced to create a better balance in this otherwise very unequal power relationship between workers and employers.

Ultimately, the law is our shield – but it only works through our unity as workers – our numbers! Without unity workers will always be unable to claim what the law gives them, or indeed to protect the labour laws themselves from the continual onslaught from employers.
That means the central right we must pick up is the right enshrined in our Constitution – the right to form and join a trade union and to participate in the activities and programmes of a trade union, and to strike.

For 20 years now, COSATU has been trying to do just that. For 20 years - 50 years if we count SACTU as our forerunner - we have been trying to unite South African workers across political, racial, regional and gender lines.
For 20 years, we have worked to build strong united industrial unions under the slogan and principle of “one union, one industry.” For 20 years we have dreamed of attaining our historic vision of “one country, one federation.”
Now is the time to move with determination and vigour and realise our slogan – Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to loose but your chains!

Through our unions, workers can negotiate better wages and benefits, and fight for better working conditions, an end to discrimination against women and people with HIV.

If the boss acts unfairly, our shopstewards and organisers can protect us, using the new laws that give workers rights. We can work with the union to make sure the boss obeys the laws that require paid leave, overtime pay and fair treatment.
Workers in a union can fight to stop retrenchment and dismissals. We can’t always win – but we can at least ensure that the bosses have to explore alternatives.

Government statistics paint a clear picture. They show that more union members get higher pay, pensions and medical schemes, as well as other rights. Amongst lower level workers, half of unorganised workers don’t even get paid leave, which the BCEA requires. In contrast, virtually every union member, at every level, gets his or her leave as required under the law.

We also have to build the union movement to protect and strengthen democracy in our country, and to defend our labour laws. COSATU gives workers and the poor a voice – often one of the few that can take on business on critical policy issues. The Growth and Development Summit demonstrated the importance of workers organising to push for economic development and job creation.

The fact remains that, as long as unemployment is very high, many workers will remain too fearful to join unions and claim their rights. Today, unemployment is still close to 40%. That is, almost half of everyone who wants a job can’t get one. And even those who get jobs often face very low pay. For every five workers in this country, two earn under R1000 a month. Even amongst union members, despite our gains, close to half earn under R2500 a month.

It is the historic duty of the labour movement, headed by COSATU, to fight for job creation on a mass scale. The better way of fighting for job creation is to fight for job retention. In this regard we submitted two section 77 notices in NEDLAC and we are now itching for action against the retail bosses and their financiers who are refusing to support the Buy Local Campaign. We are itching for action against the Reserve Bank and the government who have taken no action to help weaken the rand that is too strong and that is putting thousands of our jobs in the mining and manufacturing sectors of the economy. If we do not fight these battles with vigour then it makes no sense to recruit or to pick up gains. The first price is that we must have quality jobs thereafter we must be protected by laws and strong unions.

At the same time, the labour movement is today again called on to defend our laws, our victories in the past ten years. There is a move afoot to say that small enterprises should be exempt from the labour laws. But half of all workers in the country work in enterprises with less than 50 workers. Should they be denied the protection of our laws?

Equally we should fight the new attempts to roll back protection for workers working in smaller firms. The proposal to exempt small enterprise from bargaining council agreements would mean the effective end of collective negotiations for petrol attendants and much of the clothing industry. Ending the skills levy for small enterprise would mean these workers, as well as virtually all farm and retail workers, would have even less chance of getting training. That is not going to solve the economic problems of our country: it will only worsen them.

COSATU can never accept that only some workers will enjoy their rights under the Constitution. We cannot accept blanket exemptions for some types of employer. We are prepared to work with government and employers to ensure that the labour laws have the best possible outcomes for all our people. But we are not prepared to entertain simple-minded attacks on our laws that aim to force our people and our economy back onto the low-wage, low-productivity path engineered by apartheid.

To all workers employed in the farms we say: Join the union, that the only way you can help fight against the daily abuse by your employers. To domestic workers we say: Join a union now and fight for decent pay and better working hours.

To workers employed as casuals or temporaries, to all workers who have been outsourced and subcontracted, we say: Join the union. Our response to the bosses’ attempts to side step the new labour laws by subcontracting must be a demand for equal pay for work of equal value.

Through this campaign to pick up our gains, we must remove the myth in the minds of many casualised workers that the law does not protect them. All workers, no matter what kind of position they have, can join a union - no one can dismiss or discriminate against you for joining a union.
To taxi drivers, security guards and cleaners all over the country we say join the union and stop bosses from exploiting you in the manner they do.

Finally, to all the shopstewards and organisers in COSATU, to all the office bearers and officials of our affiliates, I have to say, first, that we have a duty to all workers to drive our recruitment campaign. Second, we can never recruit new members if the current members are not happy about the service we provide them.

We can never be successful unless we fund education for shop stewards and officials so that they can use the law to defend our members from the bosses. We cannot succeed unless we ensure effective structures that respond quickly and decisively when our members cry for help.
Recruitment will not take off the ground if we do not act against hopeless organisers and leaders who do not deserve the confidence workers have placed in them.

The recruitment campaign must help to turn every worker into a union organiser. Union members will only become organisers and good ambassadors for the unions if they are themselves happy with the protection their unions offer them.